Kate Atkinson: Life After Life (review)

Life-after-life-cover‘And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur – if a dish was to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.’ (p. 127)

As a writer, I guess you sometimes sit down and write various things as anexercise to keep your juices flowing. Imagine your joy and/or surprise when you discover that your writing exercises is much more than use exercises and is actually something useful, something that can be turned into a novel.
I think that is how Kate Atkinson must have felt after writing several versions of the birth of a little girl and discovering that there’s something there, something more than just exercises. Discovering the spark that could become a book.
This is how I feel Life After Life starting. As a series of writing exercises that suddenly turned into something interesting. Ursula is born on February 11, 1910. And she dies that same night. But then she’s born again and manages to survive to the age of five years old – when she drowns. And is born again. And dies again at age five by falling from the roof. But slowly, she’s learning. She gets swimming lessons, she avoids climbing on the roof to get her toys and slowly, she grows older. She vaguely remembers her previous lives and what would have killed her in a previous life, she can avoid in a later life – even though it sometimes takes her several tries to get it right. Throughout the book I was so impressed with her ability to keep on writing the same scene over and over without it becoming boring in any way.
To judge by this book, life is sort of like one of those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books, so popular in the 80s. A situation is described and then you choose what your action will be – and either die or live. If you die, you can go back and try again and eventually you will manage to make it all the way to the end. Life is also changed by just one small thing being changed. Let’s say a boy kisses Ursula – this sends her down one chain of events and turns out to be a bad chain. In her next life, then, she avoids the kiss and a whole new chain of events unfolds. So it isn’t always her death she has to prevent, it can be a small events that triggers a lot of other events and she then has to stop or change that one event.
Ursula stumbles and falls and seems to be a very accident prone young girl but she learns. She learns how to survive the Spanish flu, she learns how to survive the London Blitz. But the lessons come with a price and for much of her life – for many of her lives – she isn’t happy.
Her childhood though, and Atkinson’s description of it, is marvelous. I enjoyed reading about Ursula and her siblings, her parents, her friends and all their dogs. It reminded me of parts of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book – which I also really liked. This also meant that I really started caring for Ursula and having a character you rather like die eight times in 140 pages can be a bit rough. And then there’s about 300 more pages after that.
This book definitely comes with it’s fair share of tragic events. We have abortion, so many deaths, wife abuse, love affairs, wars – and even Adolf Hitler. This is a historical fiction novel but with a strong philosophical overtone. Her descriptions of the events of World War I and II and especially the London Blitz are spot on and as Ursula gets to relive it several times, we get to do so too.
Time is just a construct in this novel. All that is real, is the now. There’s no stability and things just seem to go round in circles. Or so it is for Ursula. But is it that way for any other characters? There were times where I suspected it – but I’m not sure. And of course, philosophically speaking, to have only one person being able to change her life like this, seems to indicate that all the rest of the population is just figments of her imagination. And then we’re on the straight path towards solipsism – the worst philosophical evil in the world, according to my old philosophy professor. However, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book quite a bit. And any book that makes me wonder about determinism, the question of time, solipsism, the problem of identity through time and a whole list of other philosophical questions while caring about it’s protagonist and her troubles, is making me a happy reader.
Especially since this book is also funny at times. I noted down several wonderful quotes while reading this book: ‘She supposed she would go to bed with him eventually. There was no great argument to be found against it.’ (p. 368) or this one: ‘you should read philosophy at university, you have the right kind if mind for it. Like a terrier with a terrifically tedious bone.’ (p. 200) or this description: ‘Mrs Fellowes, a woman to whom nature had denied elegance and who always smelled vaguely of fried onions. Not necessarily a disagreeable thing.’ (p. 70). I also like that Ursula takes swimming lessons from a man who just barks orders at them until they are too afraid to sink! And I really enjoyed that the book Ursula uses to distract her while hiding out in the shelters during the London Blitz, is Proust: ‘Now that the war looked as if it were going to last for ever Ursula had decided she might as well embark on Proust.’ (p. 263). When nothing better to do in the middle of a war, read Proust!
The novel begins with Ursula trying to kill Hitler. The reason for this is fairly obvious, of course. ‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’ Ursula said. ‘If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’ (p. 261). But reading the book, you don’t really care much about whether she will succeed or not. What you do care about is whether Ursula manages to succeed in living the one life that’s her true life. If such a thing exists.

‘Sometimes it was harder to change the past than it was the future.’ (p. 447)

First line: A fun of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.

  • Title: Life After Life
  • Author: Kate Atkinson
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 477 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

8 thoughts on “Kate Atkinson: Life After Life (review)

  1. I suspect that this is what’s called in the UK a Marmite kind of book – you either love it or you hate it. I loved it, and, as you point out, it certainly makes you think. It’s a little while since I read it so thanks for reminding me of how amusing it is in places – the ‘terrier with the particularly tedious bone’ is both spot on and very funny!

    • I’m not sure I have heard the expression Marmite book before, but I think you’re right. The reviews I’ve seen, seem to be in either the love it or hate it camp, not snuggly in the middle.
      Yes, isn’t that terrier quote funny?

    • I’m curious if you’ll like it too. I thought it a really good read – though not necessarily one where you keep thinking about the characters, maybe more about the philosophical problems…

  2. I agree with Susan. This is definitely a marmite book. Like her, I loved it but I know others who have failed to see the point. It’s coming up on two of my reading group lists over the next couple of months and I shall be very interested to see how the people there react to it.

    • I think this is an excellent book for a reading group – there’s a lot things that can be discussed and talked about. I would actually have liked reading it with other people to talk some things out while reading.

  3. Thanks for the review! Wow, choose your own adventure books are a bit of a blast from the past. I’m planning to read Life After Life at some point this year, so it was interesting to read your thoughts. At 477 pages, did you find the book fast-paced or it took some time to get into the story?

    • Well, after a brief prologue involving Hitler, the main character died on page 2, I think, and then was reborn, so I was immediately drawn in. It’s not a fast-paced book but it’s very engaging.

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